Parshas Bo contains some important benchmarks in Jewish History. Most importantly, it is when we left Mitzrayim, officially beginning the process of becoming the chosen nation of Hashem. But there’s also a very important first, the first mitzvah given to Bnei Yisrael.
This mitzvah was Rosh Chodesh; we must be aware of when the moon renews itself each month, and declare that day of renewal the first of the month. This is a very important mitzvah as the start of the different Yomim Tovim is dependent on the timing of the first of the month. In fact, this mitzvah is extra special because it places this timing in our hands. This is as opposed to Shabbos which is always the seventh day of the week, a timing determined by Hashem by Creation. When it comes to Yom Tov, only we the people can say when the holiday will fall out.
The Ramban gives a quick and interesting idea regarding the months of the year. When it comes to the names of the days of the week, in Judaism, we simply refer to them as the number day it is in the weekly cycle. While the Western world has adopted meaningful names behind each day, they are all names after various planets and/or gods, we have kept simple names. We call them First Day, Second Day, etc. However, when it comes to the months, each one has a specific name. Nissan, Iyar, Sivan; these are all names with real translations and explanations behind them. What’s the difference between the months and the days of the week?
The Ramban explains that originally, the months were counted the same way as the days. The pasuk states that the month at the time the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh was given, what we now know as the month of Nissan, would be the beginning of the months (See Shemos 12:2). What exactly does it mean to be the beginning of the months? The first assumption would be it’s the first month of the year. But we know that the Jewish year doesn’t begin in Nissan, it begins in Tishrei, the seventh month. So that can’t be it.
Rather, explains the Ramban, it’s the first of the months from when we left Mitzrayim. This seminal event in Jewish history wouldn’t mark the beginning of time (which would place Nissan as the beginning of the year), but it would be marked. The months would be counted as beginning from this important moment.
So what changed? Since nowadays the months all have specific names, we obviously changed that custom. Why did it change? Even more interestingly, the names we use for the months are not even of Hebrew origins! This last point is the key to this mystery.
As we explained, the mitzvah to count months was given to us as we prepared to leave Mitzrayim. As such, we began to count the months from that vital moment. However, sadly, that was not the last time we left our Land for exile in our history. Many years later, after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, the Jewish People were exiled to Bavel. And when we returned from that exile, we began to count the months from that moment, same as we had when we left Mitzrayim. As the pasuk says, “לָכֵן הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם יְהוָה וְלֹא יֵאָמֵר עוֹד חַי יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָה אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. כִּי אִם חַי יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָה אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ צָפוֹן" “Therefore, behold, days are coming, says Hashem, and it shall no longer be said, ‘Hashem lives, Who brought the children of Yisrael up from the land of Egypt.’ Rather, ‘Hashem lives, Who brought up the children of Yisrael from the land of the north…” (Yirmiyahu 16:14-15). This idea manifested itself in the names of the months. We dropped the simple names and adopted Babylonian names for each month. This allows us to remember the fact that we were exiled there and Hashem fulfilled His promise and brought us back to Eretz Yisrael; in the same way the original names served as a constant reminder and commemoration of how we left Egypt.
As we remain now in the aftermath of our second exile from Eretz Yisrael, we have kept the names we adopted from Bavel. However, when we are redeemed, we will once again change the names of the months to commemorate the great promise that Hashem will fulfill, and the great kindness He will show in so doing. May it be speedily in our days.
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